Scorsese’s ‘Wolf Of Wall Street’ delivers a wicked epic take-down of the American hustler archetype

It is easy for casual audiences to make a surface connection between something like “Good Fellas” and “Casino” and “Wolf Of Wall Street” because of the overt connections between those worlds, the decadence and the crime and the excess. What people miss in those comparisons, though, is that Scorsese has made other versions of that same basic film, these dense social x-rays of the way communities work, in films as disparate as “Kundun” and “Age Of Innocence” as well. He is one of the keenest observers of the way systems function we have ever had in cinema, and “Wolf Of Wall Street” is a powerful reminder that at the age of 71, he is as vital and as ferocious a voice as ever.

It is, of course, inaccurate to say that “Wolf Of Wall Street” is “about” the financial crisis that America recently suffered. I’m not sure what a film “about” that would look like. It’s such a broad topic that I don’t really see how you could make any film that would encompass every angle of that story. Instead, using Jordan Belfort’s book about himself, Scorsese does his best to show us exactly who it was who helped perpetuate the system that burned so many people, and the end result is a depraved, hallucinatory plunge into a truly ugly psyche. Scorsese’s real gift when making one of these movies is showing us the small details of how things work, and one of the most interesting things about “Wolf” is how often Jordan Belfort starts to explain something, only to stop because he is convinced there’s no way the audience is smart enough or interested enough to understand. That’s what he says, anyway, but I think the real reason is because a good con man, like a good magician, never really gives away the trick. Belfort is a natural-born manipulator and liar, and anyone who believes that this is the “true” story of Belfort’s rise and fall simply isn’t paying attention.

Belfort is a strange character overall. He’s Rupert Pupkin in terms of his connection to the reality that everyone else walks around sharing, and a big chunk of this film has be viewed as his version of events. He’s telling you the way he remembers things looking and feeling and playing out, and he is still in salesman mode. He can’t help himself. That’s how he’s been wired. It is a constant process for him.  He was born to sell, and it doesn’t matter if there’s a product or not. It is the engagement, the back and forth, the sheer thrill of bending someone else to his will, that Belfort is constantly pursuing. The film charts the way he built his empire on worthless penny stocks, slowly but surely building the roster of salesmen who work for him, all of them trained by him, using his script, following his lead. By far, the most important of his business relationships is with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), who doesn’t have the same gifts as Jordan. Instead, he recognizes it in Jordan, and he is smart enough to immediately apprentice himself to this beast, ready and willing to do whatever Jordan says.

It is the sheer uselessness of Jordan’s work that I find so telling, and I think that’s where the script by Terence Winter is at its best. Now that we’ve seen the sort of what can happen when the market fails, I can’t help but think that the entire thing is a bit of a shell game, a constant squeezing of the same orange somehow making more and more juice appear long after it should have gone dry. Belfort frankly doesn’t care if he’s got a triple-A IPO to sell or a crappy penny stock. The same energy and the same technique applies both ways, and what happens on either side of the sale itself is totally unimportant to him. There is no moral value to a sale for him. There’s no such thing as a good or a bad sale. It’s all just a sale, and the other important part of his character make-up is the insatiable drive he has for sensation. Whether it’s drugs or sex or drugs or money or drugs or cars or his house or drugs, the only thing that matters is “more.” The very nature of the storytelling reinforces this. Yes, we could see one scene or two scenes with Belfort using drugs, but in order to truly make us feel the excess, it has to be a constant assault. It has to pummel us. It has to wear us down, or how can we begin to know what this feels like? I may have more than my fair share of youthful indiscretions that I can call on as sense memory when I see a film like this, but at my very worst, I was a stone-cold sober angel compared to these lunatics.

Calling the film misogynistic is completely wrong-headed. The world it depicts, however, is monstrously misogynistic, and that is presented in a very clear-eyed and unapologetic way. Scorsese doesn’t moralize the material he presents. He trusts that what he’s showing you is so morally repellent on so many levels that you will have your own reaction. Scorsese’s never really been one to hold your hand as he takes you into the darkest hearts of the American landscape, and that’s why a film like this is great. It is a virtual reality machine, but a wildly heightened one. Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is a master class in how to create an emotional response through the rhythm of how you build a sequence, keeping the audience constantly on edge. Rodrigo Prieto’s photography is outstanding, rich and crisply beautiful, always appropriate to the energy of the film, communicating volumes through the way the camera is in motion. There are few visual storytellers who can pack as much into every moment as Scorsese, so three full hours of him at his very best is like a full TV season’s worth of information. You leave feeling like you’ve had your head positively overstuffed, and it’s a dizzying feeling.

One of the thing that the film reveals by virtue of the storytelling and the trappings of success that Befort surrounds himself with is just how surface and shitty the American dream can be, and how complicit Belfort’s victims are in their own downfall. It’s the same point David O. Russell makes in “American Hustle,” and it’s true. You can’t con someone who isn’t willing to be conned. You can’t sell someone the dream of excessive abandon unless they believe on some level that they are owed that same thing. I recoil from the lifestyle that I see Belfort leading here because I understand that you don’t live like that unless it is on the backs of other people. You don’t get stupid rich unless some stupid person is willing to give you their money. Wall Street may be a vampire, but America leaves a standing invitation at the door, allowing themselves to be drained because they hope against hope that just maybe they’ll get turned and then it’ll be them doing the draining.

Leonardo DiCaprio has forged a fascinating relationship with Scorsese, and this is the best thing they’ve done together, a role that he attacks with no sense of anything being held back. Jonah Hill was award-nominated for his very good work in “Moneyball,” but what he does here is next-level, feeding off of DiCaprio’s energy, the two of them whipping each other into a frenzy in scene after scene. There is a sequence in the film involving the two of them overdoing it on Quaaludes that is, no exaggeration, one of the best extended sequences of physical comedy that I’ve seen in recent memory. On top of the performances, there’s the payoff of how Scorsese stages it and how he ultimately reveals the “truth” of what we’re watching, all of it working together. Special praise must be given to Margot Robbie, as well, as Naomi, the girl who tempts Jordan away from his first marriage, only to end up saddled with him as he free-falls through the implosion of his rotten, awful life. Her flawless Jersey accent (she’s Australian) and the canny way she uses her physical beauty as a way to remake the world the way she wants it, the way she’s sure she deserves it. It is an amazing performance, not least because she doesn’t give an inch to DiCaprio. She stands toe-to-toe with him in even the most explosive moments, and gives just as good as she gets. Matthew McConaughey has a deliriously weird scene near the start of the film, and Jon Bernthal, who seems to be everywhere this year, makes a hilarious foil for Hill in particular. Kyle Chandler is the main FBI agent on Belfort’s tail, and they have a great scene where they fence verbally over a very clumsy bribe attempt that is pure performance pleasure. I also have a real soft spot for Rob Reiner’s work as Belfort’s somewhat baffled dad, not sure exactly what his son’s up to, but helpless to steer him right.

In the end, “The Wolf Of Wall Street” reveals Belfort as the empty hustler he is, and while it’s certainly possible some people will take the wrong things from the seductive surfaces of the movie, Scorsese’s built this one to reward repeat viewings, and there is nothing easy or aspirational about the life it portrays. By focusing his energies on this one story, he reveals just how phony the entire house of cards truly is, and he once again perfectly captures an entire cross-section of a world within one film’s running time, proving that while other filmmakers can borrow his style and even do it well, no one cuts as deep as the master.

“The Wolf Of Wall Street” opens everywhere on Christmas Day.